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My parents have no boundaries, help!
For as long as I can remember, my dad and also my mother have been pretty inappropriate about their sex lives...How can I talk to my about it and make clear how I feel?
OUR SWEET ANGEL:
I have a problem with my family. For as long as I can remember, my dad and also my mother have been pretty inappropriate about their sexuality. For example, talking in detail about their own sex life, sharing details about each other, kinks/preferences, telling me they had sex listening to a playlist I made. We never had a lock on the bathroom door or a shower curtain so anyone could come in and comment on your body. My brother has a disability and would openly walk through the house naked and masturbating and no one would care. I always thought it was normal because when I complained they would say "but we're a family you should'nt feel ashamed" or similar.
I only realized how much I hated it and how violated I felt me when I had therapy some years later, and I'm trying to recover and develop my own sexuality and feeling better in my body etc. Also I've been trying to have a more honest relationship with my parents, so I've been talking a lot about grievances I've had and put up boundaries (like not sleeping over at their house). I haven't talked a lot about their inappropriate behavior and why it bothered me, because it's so hard to talk about. But I thought I had shared that their sexual comments make me uncomfortable and I don't want to hear them.
The worst thing is I have a teenage sister who is still living at home. I'm not home a lot (I live in a different city 3 hours away), but a couple of times I noticed my dad being inappropriate towards her, like calling her a "prude" because she wanted some privacy, and making gross comments about women he finds hot. I tried to speak up whenever I could but I would feel so horrible afterwards, and I don't even know if it changed anything.
Today I was on the phone with my dad when he told me about masturbating in the morning. I was really angry and told him not to tell me this stuff, he reacted the same way again: Saying he doesn't understand the problem, that it's normal and not private. In the end, he accepted it. But I know he doesn't understand and it and he doesn't see the bigger picture.
I feel like I want to write him an email. I really just want to make him understand. But I'm so scared he won't and that I'll feel even worse about opening up. I've talked to him in the past about things that have upset me, and he has reacted in a positive way, listening and accepting (mostly).
I guess I wanted to ask, how can I talk to him about it and really make clear how I feel? And how can I feel less scared about my sister? I often worry about her, and I try to be there for her, but it's also hard. Sometimes when she tells me about something going on at home I get so upset and scared and feel like I have to save her. It makes me feel unprotected again. I'm still embarrassed to talk to my friends.
First of all, I am so sorry. This is thorny and horrible and no one should have to be in the position that you are in. No one should have to explain to their PARENT why it is is not appropriate to talk about masturbating to their own child. Parents are meant to uphold and model good boundaries, and you lived in a household totally free from boundaries. That’s a mindfuck and a half, to put it mildly.
I’m going to use the word “abuse” in the rest of my letter, because in my opinion, what happened to you and what is happening to your sister is abusive. Trying to see your kids naked bodies when they don’t want you to is abusive. You may not be ready to use that word. You may never be ready to use that word. There is no one special threshold with a bunch of check marks for every situation out there that makes something abusive or not, and frequently we are reluctant to label things as such because it sounds too “serious.” But what happened to you was serious. And if you’re asking if something is actually abuse or simply very very close to abuse, that thing is BAD and CRUEL. I’m giving you the heads up because relationships with abusive family members are much more complex than any of us would like to admit, or even can sometimes understand. They’re fraught as fuuuuuck. Just because you admit your parents behavior was abusive, does not mean you will suddenly stop loving them. There are no easy or right answers for what to do next. But here are some things I think may help.
The first thing I think you should do is talk to your sister outside of the house, if you can. Either invite her to stay with you in your city for a weekend or take her out for coffee or lunch when you get home. When you have some alone time that cannot be interrupted by either of your parents, open up to her about your experience and the revelations that you’ve reached with therapy and time. It took you YEARS to get there, and she will not arrive at the same conclusions as you will simply because you told her to, or because you’re correct about something. The best you can do is be honest and keep the line of communication open so that she can share when she feels like it. That might go something like this, “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about mom and dad. It took me a while of not living at home to fully understand how weird our house was and the damage it had done to me. You’ll obviously have your own experience, and maybe you already know some of this and maybe you never feel this way, but I want to make it clear that what’s going on with mom and dad is NOT normal, and it’s totally normal if you don’t feel good about it.” Label the experience as unhealthy and abnormal. Let her know that you do not condone it and that you’re open to hearing criticism/feelings/fear/sadness/confusion from her about what’s going on at home.
You cannot undo the years of abuse in that house in one conversation, or even two. You can’t undo it with a nice coffee with your sister and an email to your dad. You are not that powerful. No one is. The best you can do is show up and keep showing up for your sister. You can’t overpower the situation but you can outlast the problem. This is a test of endurance. There will likely be days when your sister (painfully) defends your parents, isn’t on the same page as you, is mad at you for pointing out that this was abuse, thinks that you ruined her childhood. (WHICH YOU DID NOT, btw). That’s part of her process. Your job is to just keep showing up and being open to hearing her feelings. Your job is to keep listening.
She is unlikely to realize just how bad things were at home until she’s fully out of the house. You’re going to have to be patient. I have been in a somewhat similar situation with my younger siblings and it’s frustrating as all hell and it requires an ASSLOAD of patience.
Now, the second thing I think you should do is confront your father (and perhaps mother?) either in person or via email and explain what your boundaries are now and why that is the case. A thing I try to do when communicating about emotional topics is write out everything I want to say to someone and then edit it down to everything I need them to hear. Those two things are different. You might want to say, “Fuck you for putting us in this situation, you fucking suck and I hate you right now.” But that often doesn’t do as much as saying what they need to actually hear— something like: “I’m very hurt by the fact that you aren’t listening to my and [sister’s] boundaries. This is incredibly violating and rude. I don’t care that you’re ok being naked, we are not ok with you being naked, and when you don’t listen to us and mock that or ignore that boundary, you are not respecting us as people.”
Then, after you send your email, uphold those boundaries as much as you possibly can. Be firm and do not be afraid that you are being mean. NOT WANTING TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR DAD JERKING OFF IS NOT MEAN, BY THE FUCKING WAY. Find a phrase that you feel comfortable with and use it on repeat. Become a brick wall when your father starts talking to you about sexual things. “I am not talking to you about this, that is inappropriate and hurtful, and I will leave if you keep talking about it.” And then repeat that and repeat that repeat that until either he stops or you leave. Create consequences and follow through. I guarantee that there will be a time where he is hurt by what you are doing—which is really not anyone’s concern because HE’S BEEN ABUSING YOU FOR YEARS.
There comes a time in all of our lives where we see our parents more clearly and for all the times they were “disappointed” in us, we are now disappointed in them (and perhaps more so because we were kids and they were the adults).
I strongly encourage you to keep going to therapy if you can afford to because holding firm on boundaries with abusive family members is HARD AS FUCK!!!!!!! And because he’s likely to try to push and violate boundaries again, which can really bring up the shit from the past.
One last thing: you’re allowed to walk away. I mean, of course, that’s much easier said than done, and I’m not suggesting you walk away from your siblings. But you are allowed to walk away from this problem and this relationship with your parents. You are allowed to take a break, to not talk to them, to not see them, to cut off or down on communication. You do not owe them your fealty after years of their abuse. You do not owe them ANYTHING.
Keep yourself and your sister as safe as you can, but know that you alone cannot do everything. Draw firm boundaries and do everything in your power to uphold them. Your father and mother may never get what they did and why it hurt, and that in and of itself will hurt. That will be a very specific type of pain. You do not have to give them any wiggle room simply because they don’t “get” it. Be prepared to be disappointed in their response to you—unfortunately, if they cared about their children’s feelings, they likely would have stopped a long time ago, which makes me a bit pessimistic about their future behavior. All you can do for sure is create boundaries so firm and rigid that you can fall back on those when they hurt you.
I wish you so much luck; your sister is beyond blessed to have you in her corner, even if she doesn’t know it yet. She will be ok— she will be hurt and violated like you were, but she has you to commiserate with and to sort through this mess with. Confronting your parents will be hard, but it’s necessary. Sadly, there’s no way out but through, which is unfair and sucks shit and you should absolutely complain to a therapist about that. But you can do it. You’re allowed to be scared and sad and worried. You’re allowed to take breaks. You’re allowed to scream into a pillow eight days in a row. You’re doing great.
Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter; she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tweets about everything else at @1followernodad, is a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. You can reach her or yell at her at email@example.com.